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Luana Conley
January 21st, 2014

Genetically Engineered Food: An Overview

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For centuries, farmers were able to use generations’ worth of knowledge to breed seeds and livestock for the most desirable traits. However, technological innovation has gradually made this method of breeding nearly obsolete. Today, most soybeans, corn and cotton have been genetically engineered — altered with inserted genetic material — to exhibit traits that repel pests or withstand the application of herbicides.

Mergers and patent restrictions have increased the market power of biotechnology companies. The onslaught of genetic engineering has not only diminished the ability of farmers to practice their own methods of seed selection, but also turned another sector of agriculture into a business monopolized by a few corporations.

Farmers, who now depend on the few firms that sell seeds and affiliated agrochemicals, face higher prices and patent infringement lawsuits if a patent is allegedly violated. Genetic contamination is a serious threat to the livelihoods of non-GE and organic farmers who bear the financial burden for these incidents.

GE crops can take a toll on agriculture and surrounding wildlife as well. The environmental effects of GE crops include intensified agrochemical use and pollution, increased weed and insect resistance to herbicides and pesticides, and gene flow between GE and non-GE crops.

Once GE products are on the market, no labeling is required. This means that U.S. consumers blindly eat and drink GE ingredients every day and are not given the knowledge or choice to do otherwise. Several studies point to the health risks of GE crops and their associated agrochemicals, but proponents of the technology promote it as an environmentally responsible, profitable way for farmers to feed a growing global population. Yet the only ones experiencing any benefits from GE crops are the few, massive corporations that are controlling the food system at every step and seeing large profit margins.

New technologies — like genetic engineering — create uncertainties and risk that should be carefully evaluated rather than being rapidly pushed onto the market. The existing regulatory framework for GE foods simply does not measure up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration have failed to protect the environment, the food system or public health from GE foods.

Food & Water Watch recommends:

  • A moratorium on new approvals of genetically engineered plants and animals;
  • Mandatory labeling of GE foods;
  • Liability for GE contamination that rests with seed patent holders;
  • Use of the precautionary principle for the evaluation of GE crops, animals and food;
  • A new regulatory framework for GE crops, animals and food; and
  • Improved agency coordinator and increased post-market regulation of GE foods.